Caterpillar, Stanley Black & Decker, and Whirlpool are household names in the United States. But another industrial company is flying under the radar and leading in the space. Launched by a group of investors in 1912, Illinois Tool Works (ITW) has grown into a Fortune 200 global organization with 19,300 patents, 45,000 employees in 52 countries, and $14.5 billion in annual revenue.
Jennifer Schott joined ITW in 2021. As senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary, she’s responsible for advising on all legal matters and helping the business execute on ITW’s enterprise strategy and reach its strategic goals.
ITW grew steadily through acquisitions, received its first patent in 1916, and went public in the 1970s. ITW now has a diverse portfolio of seven market-leading segments that include automotive, construction, and food equipment.
Like ITW, Schott has taken an unexpected journey to the top. The veteran in-house attorney and trusted advisor with two decades of experience was once an antitrust expert and big firm litigator. “In retrospect, my career looks well planned. However, it really happened by accident. I thought I would be a litigator for life,” she reflects. “Keeping an open mind and being willing to grow and learn guided my career journey.”
Schott was born and raised in Illinois and completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois before enrolling at Chicago-Kent College of Law. She spent five years in Chicago-area law firms doing complex trial work and deepening her knowledge of antitrust laws.
However, by the time Schott was a sixth-year associate on the partner track, she started rethinking her career goals. She was conflicted. “An in-house position was tempting, but I didn’t want to give up my antitrust work. I enjoyed learning deeply about an industry and business,” she explains. A role at Discover Financial Services turned out to be the perfect fit.
In 2003, Schott joined the financial services company as the second in-house litigator where she continued to litigate complex matters and handled the noteworthy Discover v. Visa antitrust case that brought a $2 billion settlement. She also developed strategy, managed internal investigations, supervised outside counsel, and led teams.
After nearly ten years, Schott’s general counsel asked her to serve as her chief of staff. “I had reservations,” Schott recalls. “I liked litigation and was hesitant to step into areas that I knew little about—like corporate secretarial work, operations, and budget planning. However, I also liked challenges and saw the opportunity to expand my skill set.”
That started a new era in which Schott worked alongside the general counsel, began working with boards, and helped stand up a legal operations function. After her chief of staff role, she was chosen to lead Discover’s Public Company team and was responsible for advising management and the board on securities, governance, employee benefits, executive compensation, and capital markets transactions. Although Schott was not a securities, compensation, or benefits lawyer, the experience taught her how to leverage her unique experience and judgment, issue spot, and lead a strong team of subject-matter experts.
By 2019, Schott was working as Discover’s vice president and assistant general counsel when she received a call from Caterpillar (CAT). The large equipment manufacturer needed someone to lead a large global team supporting the governance, securities, mergers and acquisitions, government affairs, and tax teams, as well as advising CAT’s finance and insurance company.
Schott admits she was intimidated to take on a role that was bigger in size and scope, but says she only had to reflect back on other pivotal moments in her career to gain the necessary confidence. “Thinking about other times I ventured into new areas, gave me the courage to take on this challenge and continue to discover what I am capable of,” she says.
Schott’s stint with Caterpillar before joining ITW was relatively brief, but she says she developed “in dog years” as part of its team, especially helping to navigate the pandemic. Expanding her areas of responsibility and functioning within legal and financial executive leadership groups rounded out her experience and prepared her to lead an entire department as general counsel.
That’s when ITW came calling. In 2021, the organization needed someone to lead a legal function in its decentralized and entrepreneurial business model. For Schott, the opportunity represented a departure from the highly matrixed and centralized worlds of CAT and Discover.
ITW has developed a proprietary business model, which is a powerful set of strategic, operational, and cultural practices that business units deploy to maximize performance. Leaders in each business unit come to Schott and her legal colleagues to solve unique needs. As an Illinois native and resident, Schott is happy to have found a new home that suits her well. “Working at ITW has been like finding a hidden treasure in my backyard, and I am practicing law how I had always envisioned,” she says. “The legal department and business work together as true partners.”
Schott is continuing to evolve the department that was once a “deal machine” that helped finish dozens of acquisitions each year. In 2013, ITW announced a new enterprise strategy focused on organic growth. It divested commodities and rationalized the business, which forced legal to realign. Today, the global legal team has lawyers in the US, Europe, and Asia and has teams of commercial, intellectual property, governance, litigation, and compliance lawyers.
“Jenn has made a significant impact at ITW from the day she walked in the door,” says Michael Conway, litigation partner at Jones Day. “She has demonstrated an impressive ability to master a diverse and complex set of business and legal issues and, just as importantly, fit seamlessly within ITW’s unique corporate culture.”
Things are looking bright as ITW moves into the post pandemic era. In late 2022, the company announced total revenue of $4 billion for its most recent quarter, which is 10 percent better than the same three-month period of the previous year. The company will continue to grow and develop—and Schott plans to do the same.